New York Times
January 13, 1999
By MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN
NEW YORK -- William H. Whyte, the author who defined corporate conformity and warned against its growth in the classic book "The Organization Man," died Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was 81 and lived in Manhattan.
Whyte, who was an editor of Fortune magazine when he wrote his best-selling 1956 work, went on to a distinguished second career as a scholar of the human habitat, specifically as a close observer of street life and urban space. As an urbanologist he wrote, taught, planned and once spent 16 years watching and filming what people do on the streets of New York.
He also conducted a study showing that a large percentage of companies that moved from New York City ended up in locations less than eight miles from the homes of their chief executives.
But it was "The Organization Man" that first brought him to wide public attention. It was one of several works of literate and provocative social analysis to appear in the '50s, among them David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd" (1950), which dealt with the formation of values of the urban middle class; Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders" (1957), which critically dissected advertising and consumerism; and John Kenneth Galbraith's "American Capitalism" (1952), which emphasized oligopolies and countervailing powers.
Whyte's book challenged and refuted claims of entrepreneurial vigor and daring in business by describing an ongoing bureaucratization of white-collar environments -- board rooms, offices, laboratories.
C. Wright Mills, the sociologist whose own pioneering work, "The Power Elite," appeared in 1956, said of Whyte in The New York Times Book Review: "He understands that the work-and-thrift ethic of success has grievously declined -- except in the rhetoric of top executives; that the entrepreneurial scramble to success has been largely replaced by the organizational crawl."
Whyte wrote that corporate norms based on the pursuit of safety and security and characterized by conformity had spread to academic and scientific institutions and prevailed in the white-collar suburbs then proliferating that."
Whyte spent hours, days and years watching the world go by, often filming the passing scene in time-lapse photographs or charting pedestrian movement on pads of graph paper. He found that the corner outside Bloomingdale's at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue had the most daytime pedestrian traffic. He learned that having peddlers on the street tended to increase sales in local stores, particularly if the peddlers sold food.
He said that what people wanted in the city was other people and that the inner city was as safe as suburban parking lots. He insisted that the best way to deal with undesirables was not to bring in more police officers but to make the area in question as attractive to as many other people as possible. This advice was specifically followed in the design of many places, among them Bryant Park.
His study, "Conservation Easements" (Urban Land Institute, 1959) was credited with helping to gain open-space legislation in California, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Among Whyte's books on the environment were "Cluster Development" (1964), "The Last Landscape" (1968), "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" (1980) and "City" (1989). He edited New York City's Master Plan in 1969, acted as a consultant on many building and zoning proposals, and was a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
He was a trustee of the Conservation Foundation and was active in the Municipal Art Society, the Hudson River Valley Commission and President Lyndon B. Johnson's Task Force on Natural Beauty.
Whyte is survived by his wife, Jenny Bell, a designer he married in 1964; a daughter, Alexandra, and a granddaughter, Madeleine Sperber, both of Boston.
As a friend of cities, Holly Whyte warned against "utopianism." He believed that the city "has always been a mess and always will be something of a mess."
He was an enemy of what he called "the fortressing of America" -- windowless walls, forbidding cement courtyards, bewildering tunnels, relentlessly grim megastructures and spikes that discourage sitters. He was in favor of razzmatazz, good honky-tonk and anything that invested sidewalks with hustle and bustle. "Up to seven people per foot of walkway a minute is a nice bustle," he once decided.
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